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14 Jun 2007 : Column 353WH—continued

and concluded that it is perturbing that the chairman of the ACMD, who pointed out that social harms were
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given equal weight in its deliberations, and the then Home Secretary have publicly expressed contradictory views about the council’s remit.

The ACMD’s response was:

I do not know what evidence it had that the briefing was inadequate rather than that those were just the then Home Secretary’s views. In another part of the report, we expressed regret that Association of Chief Police Officers members on the ACMD appeared not to understand their role. The report pointed out:

In response to that reasonably fair criticism, and given that we had heard direct evidence from the ACMD, that organisation sought to point out that the ACPO members are not representatives, and that we were wrong to call them so. In fact, in using the word “representatives”, we were quoting directly from the then Home Office Minister, who said in evidence to us:

The ACMD lashed out in its response against the Government’s misapprehensions, not ours.

It was extremely disappointing to see an apparently independent advisory council such as this being so defensive as not even to concentrate on the main points that we were making and to err in its own response by trying to be pedantic. When being pedantic, one must be right. Otherwise, it is unnecessary pedantry. At the risk of being accused, I shall move on.

The report raised a number of other issues in its recommendations, many of which were covered by the other hon. Members who have spoken. I agree with what was said about the report in The Lancet in March this year. It is a significant step for active senior members of the ACMD such as David Nutt and Colin Blakemore to publish in the medical literature a peer-reviewed paper so critical of the basis for the drug classification system. It is key. They said:

I do not think that it is right that the ACMD, at the time that we published our report, should never have considered whether the classification system to which it worked was appropriate, but at least some of its members took the initiative in doing research and publishing their findings in peer-reviewed journals. Surely that will give the Minister pause for thought and make him sit up and say, “Perhaps something is wrong with our existing policy, it needs looking at and the then Home Secretary’s decision all those months ago is worth revisiting.” It can only be disappointing for a Select Committee to hold an inquiry, to be boosted by an announcement of Government policy during that
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inquiry, to hear that a draft consultation paper is being prepared and to agree with the premise of that consultation paper, only for the Government to cancel their decision. That is extremely disappointing.

Mr. Willis: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the Government’s difficulties is the public perception that the classification system is so linked to the criminal justice system that to decouple the two would cause irreparable harm to their fight against drugs? The Committee was suggesting—there is a genuine misunderstanding—not that the criminal justice system should not be looked at with regard to drugs, but that the classification system, in being decoupled, should have a clear evidence base for where drugs are placed in relation to each other in a classification of harm, leaving the Home Office, the Minister and his colleagues to look at policy on the criminal justice system. That is a real difficulty.

Dr. Harris: Indeed. It is important to say that the Select Committee’s report did not say that there should not be a criminal justice approach. That was not within its remit, and I do not want to give the impression that it was. It made it clear that the current system of linking the scale of harm to penalties is flawed, and that sending out messages with no evidence is also flawed, as my hon. Friend made clear in his excellent opening speech. Even without the Minister accepting that pursuing the criminal justice-based approach to the exclusion or detriment of any other approaches is wrong, it is easy for the Government to accept the report’s recommendations. It is a unanimous report from people who do not all share my view or that of my party colleagues that the focus of the Government’s approach is wrong. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.

The report raised concerns about the relationship between the ACMD and Departments. Again and inevitably, the ACMD was extremely defensive in its response and argued that there were perfectly good links with other Departments. It stated:

It continued:

There are good reasons for the Committee thinking that. The Department for Education and Skills seems keen to promote random drug testing in schools. When I heard that that was happening in a Kent school where someone had been given a role in that work by the Government and had resigned as head teacher in order to carry it out, I looked at the evidence base. I noted that the ACMD report “Pathways to Problems” states:

Dr. Iddon: I understand that that Kent school has now dropped the idea. It was extremely costly in the first place because the tests had to be paid for, and the outcomes were almost non-existent. Only one or two
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cases involving children who had used drugs materialised, if that. The evidence from America shows that putting sniffer dogs into schools is a bad idea.

Dr. Harris: Indeed. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I am aware of the evidence. On 31 May 2006, BBC Online said:

It went on to say that he had

As I understand it, the Department for Education and Skills was going to announce funding for more schools to sign up to random testing. If the project had been properly researched or was a trial that was to be properly evaluated with a clear protocol, rather than a case of seeking to fund something because it sounded good, I would not criticise it. However, given that the ACMD did not recommend piloting a scheme, but was against that, it is not unreasonable for the Select Committee to question its links with the Department for Education and Skills, particularly if a clear recommendation seems to have been ignored in respect of one of the few policies relating to the ACMD’s work that the Department for Education and Skills has promoted.

I want to talk about politicians’ approach to the matter. It is important, and I hope that you will bear with me, Mr. Bercow. As has been said, the failure to grasp the importance of the need to tackle the problem properly and honestly is depressing. I want to set out Liberal Democrat policy, if only to reassure the hon. Member for Newport, West that we are very clear about it.

We want to re-establish the existing ACMD as a standing drugs commission with a remit to look at the effects and abuse of all drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, to reallocate resources to drugs treatment, education and rehabilitation facilities, to introduce measures to reduce drug dependency, including specialist heroin treatment clinics, and to allow GPs to prescribe emergency doses of heroin in certain circumstances.

There is good evidence from other countries to show that allowing the health care system to help users who are not deterred by the prospect of prosecution and imprisonment would do far more to fight crime, because of the impact of acquisitive crime by drug addicts. I look forward to the Minister giving me some comfort on that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I apologise for intervening, because it is often better to listen to the whole debate and to respond at the end, but this may be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. Of the people who enter drug treatment, 80 per cent. do so through the NHS and health programmes, and 20 per cent. do so through the criminal justice system. I wanted to highlight that point, because there is often a misconception among the general public that the vast majority of people who enter treatment do so through the criminal justice system. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about treatment, and part of our success has been significantly to increase the number who enter treatment.

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Dr. Harris: That is an interesting intervention, and I am afraid that I shall become epidemiological again. I am grateful to the Minister for engaging, but an increased number of people coming forward for treatment might reflect an increased number of users, so that might not be a sign of winning the war. I think he would accept that, and I am not criticising him. Raw numbers do not necessarily provide the answer. I am not sure whether he is saying that an increased proportion is coming through the health care sector rather than the enforcement sector, which might indicate that more resources are going into the health care side and that the enforcement approach is failing relatively speaking, or it could mean that people are less deterred by fear of being criminalised and are coming forward. It is not clear what the figures mean.

However, it is clear—this should at least be tried—that if hard-drug-users were told that they could be treated with replacement therapy before reduction therapy and without being sent to prison or being charged, and we went after the dealers rather than the users, there would be a huge incentive for people not to resort to prostitution and acquisitive crime, because they could get their fix from a doctor, even if they did not yet want to come off drugs. I accept that that needs resources, but the scale of acquisitive crime in terms of shoplifting is remarkable.

I am conscious of the fact that we are discussing drug classification rather than general enforcement issues, but I wanted briefly to set out some of the key issues. It would be good for enforcement if ecstasy were reclassified from class A to class B, separating it from the most dangerous drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine. At the very least, we would want to see the evidence, otherwise it would be wrong of us to criticise the Government for not listening to the evidence. If the ACMD considered it and argued that ecstasy should remain as class A on a basis that we supported, rather than a basis framed by the Government’s approach, we would reconsider the issue. Let us be clear about that. It is clear that if people have to go to class A drug dealers to get hold of ecstasy, which young people use on such a widespread scale, the dealers might want to sell them stuff that was even more addictive, and which produced even higher returns for them. That must be understood.

We strongly support the Government’s position on cannabis as a class C drug. In fact, as the Minister knows, we would go further. The Conservative party feel strongly about the issue, but I say to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) that we the Liberal Democrats recognise that it is a dangerous drug, and that I as a doctor realise that it is bad for people. I have never taken it, because I do not see why I should put my health at risk through those means.

The question is not about cannabis being harmful, however, because if we were rational about that issue, measures on cigarettes and alcohol would be enforced to a greater extent. I recognise the scientific expertise of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East, but the question is not about how strong cannabis is or about what evidence there is about its contribution to psychosis. The whole issue plays on the need to educate, not to enforce, given the number of people who are at risk.

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I do not understand why politicians want to get into that posturing—that Dutch auction. I remember when, some time ago, the Conservative party, at the behest of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), wanted to take a very tough line, which was derailed by the fact that many of the shadow Cabinet then admitted that they had been cannabis users. That fact is not relevant, however; the policy was wrong. The fact that they had taken it shows that the policy was wrong, but they should have dropped the policy not because of that fact, but because it was wrong.

Paul Flynn: The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald was making what was to her a powerful point, saying that there was a slippery slope, and that if somebody started taking cannabis, they would end up in terrible degradation. The seven people who made the admission said “We took cannabis, and we ended up on the Tory Front Bench.” Did not that support her policy?

Dr. Harris: Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman brings me to the case of the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), a constituency neighbour of mine, whom I greatly admire. However, I see in the Oxford Mail the headline, “Boris: I took cocaine and cannabis”. The article says:

None of the Oxfordshire MPs, other than myself, was prepared to discuss their past, and if the Conservative party wants to take an enforcement-based approach, it should call for the hon. Gentleman’s prosecution. I must say that I would rush to his defence, but it seems that with his confession, he is bang to rights. Unless Conservative policy is for a statute of limitations, it would not seem sensible that people who have possessed and used class A drugs should be exempt 10 or 20 years on because they took them only at university. I do not understand the rationale behind that idea.

Why should a politician—let us not be too specific—want to condemn potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of young people to a criminal record, but then say that they are entitled to privacy themselves? A defendant cannot say, “It is a private matter. Before I became a bricklayer, I was at college, and I am entitled to keep private my life before I became a bricklayer” or, indeed, “I am entitled to keep private my life before I became unemployed.” Why should the suggestion that one is entitled to a private life before one becomes an MP be used as a defence by a party that wants to prosecute without any exceptions? I think I have made my point.

I applaud the Science and Technology Committee, the other members—not myself—of the Committee, the staff and the Chairman. No greater honour may be given to the Chairman, the Committee members and the staff than that which Lord Cobbold gave in the House of Lords in January, when he said:

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The report’s title stated that current drug classification policy was not fit for purpose, and the Government face an enormous challenge to change its direction. I accept that it will not happen overnight, but I hope that, at the very least, the Government will identify which parts of their policies are evidence-based and which are politics-based, because they are entitled to do so. I hope also that they will agree not to attack other parties for having evidence-based policies, which scientists, scientific advisers and the published medical literature support, when they themselves do not have policies that stand up to the same scrutiny.

4.15 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow.

I begin by thanking the Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), for his report and his colleagues for their work in producing it. I thank him also for the measured way in which he introduced the subject, which cannot be said of all speeches this afternoon. The title of the report, which was published last July, “Drug classification: making a hash of it?”, demonstrates not only that he has—to a certain extent—a sense of humour, but that he is critical of the Government’s approach to illegal drug classification.

If one turns to part 7 of the report, one sees on page 42 the way in which the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs approaches classification. There are three categories: “Physical harm”, “Dependence”, and “Social harms”. Within those are the types of harm, or factors, that influence the ACMD’s approach. In relation to physical harm, the ACMD talks about “Acute”, “Chronic” or “Parenteral”; in relation to dependence, it talks about the “Intensity of pleasure”, “Psychological dependence” and “Physical dependence”; and in relation to social harms, it talks about “Intoxication”, “Other social harms” and “Healthcare costs”.

Paragraph 94 of the report says:

That seems to be a perfectly fair and legitimate criticism, which is based on evidence.

The report goes on to make another fair and legitimate criticism. It notes that on 19 January 2006, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said:

As three or perhaps four hon. Members have said, the review has not been undertaken, or if it has, it has not been publicly referred to. If it has been undertaken, I do not believe that we have seen any of its results. Such a legitimate criticism can be made of the Government on this difficult issue.

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